Preserving Black History at 227 Abolistionist Place

Issue 262

Brooklyn activists save former underground railroad stop from wrecking ball, plan next steps.

Olivia Riggio Mar 15, 2021

Beneath the imposing, angular structures of the luxury high-rise apartments and hotels of downtown Brooklyn sits an unassuming brick rowhouse, 227 Duffield St, on a block co-named Abolitionist Place in 2007. In February, the home, which was owned by abolitionists Thomas and Harriet Truesdell in the 1850s and 1860s, was recognized as a historic site by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission for its likely connection to the Underground Railroad, saving it from being demolished.

The movement to save the home began in 2005, when “Mama” Joy Chatel, who lived in the home and operated a salon out of the bottom floor, found an eviction notice taped to her door. Over the years, she had learned the history of the home and its connection to the Truesdells and the Underground Railroad. Her late husband’s ancestors had bought the home directly from the Truesdells.

In 2007, Chatel sued to challenge the city’s eminent-domain eviction, with the help of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality. Later that year, a report commissioned by the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) concluded there was no strong evidence of her home having been part of the Underground Railroad, despite the boards’ local historians reporting that it likely had been.

The lawsuit was settled, and Chatel was permitted to stay in her home. She turned the ground floor into a cultural center: a performing arts and rehearsal space that taught community members about the home’s history and celebrated Black culture. Before she died in 2014, she made the home’s preservation her life’s work, but attempts to get it designated a landmark were unsuccessful.

“I really don’t know where she got the strength, or the courage,” says her daughter, Shawné Lee, who recalls that her mother once had a gun pulled on her because of her work. You know, I think she was so strong in her conviction that it gave her the fortitude to just keep going.”

Proving a site was part of the Underground Railroad relies largely on circumstantial evidence, as aiding escaped slaves was illegal under the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The most recent push to save the house began in 2019, when the building’s owner, developer Samuel Hanasab, filed an application with the NYC Department of Buildings to demolish it. Lee formed the Friends of Abolitionist Place with the help of others, including Aleah Bacquie Vaughn, executive director of the CJI Fund; Imani Henry of Equality for Flatbush; activist Justin Cohen; and city expert and amateur historian Raul Rothblatt.

“For better or worse, the threat of demolition is a very concrete and coherent organizing call,” Cohen told the Indypendent.

The idea that the City was about to allow a stop on the Underground Railroad to be demolished seemed almost inconceivable to many community members, especially children.

“It really resonated with the children and young people,” says Henry, “because it’s just like, ‘You don’t even care about me having this space. I now know what it is. And you don’t want us to have it. Very simple. Why would you take this away from me?’”

In a 2020 article for Bklyner, Cohen outlined Hanasab’s history of persuading elderly and disabled homeowners to sell their properties to him for outrageously low-balled prices. In 2012, Hanasab tried to purchase a $600,000 home from an 84-year-old wheelchair-bound woman and her son for $6,000. A judge later nullified the sale, saying it “reeked of fraud.”

Typically, buildings are designated landmarks for their architectural significance, but 227 Abolitionist Place’s design was nothing special. Instead, advocates had to make the case for the home’s historical significance. The 13 historian peer reviewers who contributed to the EDC’s 2007 report had recommended that it be preserved, but according to Rothblatt, the agency buried that information in the report.

Proving a site was part of the Underground Railroad relies largely on circumstantial evidence, as aiding escaped slaves was illegal under the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The Truesdells would have faced jail if they spoke openly about their work — and the people they were helping would have been returned to slavery — but there are a few things we can deduce from what they could speak openly about, says historian Jim Driscoll. The area had many Black churches and access to transportation. The Truesdells were involved with abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and other radical social movements such as women’s rights. And, of course, there was the passed down oral history.

“You have to show that they were into many other very similar causes for which they cannot be imprisoned,” Driscoll explained. “They could never admit they were involved in the Underground Railroad. … It means that the evidence about them being Underground Railroad conductors may be spoken evidence, but it may be true.”

The basement of 227 also has architectural abnormalities, such as what appear to be sealed-up tunnels. Driscoll said many Underground Railroad historians have debunked the existence of actual underground tunnels connecting Underground Railroad stops, but there were rumored to be other stops on the block, so it’s more plausible that there were tunnels connecting them. The basement spaces could have also been hiding places.

The Friends of Abolitionist Place now plan to turn the building into a heritage site that will teach visitors about Brooklyn’s abolitionist history and celebrate Black culture — much like the space Chatel created in her home. There are also reportedly artifacts in the house, which the group can learn more about once they’re able to get inside. Friends of Abolitionist Place appealed to the city to help them resolve mold and structural problems in the house, caused by the nearby hotel which pierced the water table and caused flooding. Friends of Abolitionist Place just received 501(c) (3) status and is hoping to form a public-public partnership with the city. The city will be purchasing the home from Hanasab this month. Friends of Abolitionist Place will also be reaching out to arts and historical organizations in the county and state for help restoring it.

“I think that this offers them a really wonderful opportunity — and also challenging their own institutions — to be part of maintaining a role in history and a positive part of our history,” Bacquie Vaughn said.

Advocates are still trying to get nearby Willoughby Square Park designated as a space honoring New York’s abolitionist movement, but that project is stalling.

“There’s still a want and a need to preserve our history,” Lee said. “And I have to say ‘ours’ because it involves everyone. It involves white people, it involves Black people… it involves women, children. It involves everything. And my mom put a human face and story and feelings to that, because people can relate to just being a homeowner and struggling, or single parent or grandparent, or a business owner and the possibility of it being taken away.”

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